Standing majestically at the entrance to the Johannesburg square that now bears his name is a towering statue of Nelson Mandela. The colossal bronze monument, six metres high and weighing 2.5 tonnes, is a symbol of South Africa's new-found optimism and has become the focal point for FIFA World Cup™ celebrations – and commiserations.
Steps which lead the way to two of the square's many eateries are a sea of noise and colour as fans congregate ahead of their nations' latest encounters. It is a ritual that has been followed from Day 1, and while the colours might change on a daily basis, the infectious comradeship never alters. Formally known as Sandton Square, it took the name of the nation's hero ten years after Madiba led his beloved South Africa into a new democratic era. The great man would surely be proud of what is unfolding at the feet of his metre-long shoes as different cultures happily mix.
"We had the World Cup in Germany four years ago and it was crazy," enthuses Germany fan Stefan Venus from Munich, who has travelled to South Africa with brother Michael. "The whole world came to Germany and now the whole world is here."
"Nelson Mandela Square is very well known, it is in all the newspapers and it something you have to go to," says Werner Lehmann, a fellow German fan based in Alicante, Spain. "That is why I came here. But when you read it in the newspaper you don't really know what it is like, you have to see it, you have to feel it. It is a great, great place."
All the countries are here and everybody is happy - they say hello, and swap flags or t-shirts. It's incredible.
The square's unique atmosphere is particularly evident just hours before the last-16 clash between Brazil and Chile. Lunchtime it might be, but the Brazilian motto is clearly that it is never too early to get the party started. As a mini-conga breaks out among the South Americans in response to an accordion version of Coca-Cola's official 2010 FIFA World Cup song by WBS/Editorial/News/NewsList.htmxK'Naan, Caroline Delamarque, a Brazilian living in Miami, explains: "This is the point that everyone comes to meet and then we get to meet a lot of people and we make a lot of friends. It is the first World Cup I have been to and the atmosphere is amazing."
The musician himself, Fabricio Parisoto from Santa Catarina in Brazil, is quick to echo those sentiments – once he has put his accordion down, of course. "Everybody is here. It is a nice place, and it is a great atmosphere. The Chilean fans are new to us but there is no problem, it's a party, this is the nice thing about the World Cup - the people from different countries meeting up with each other. We sing together."
Choosing to blow his vuvuzela rather than strain his vocal chords is Chris Romario from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, who believes the link with Mandela is an equally strong pull. "I think Nelson Mandela is the greatest living man on earth," says the Ghana-supporting cheerleader. "He has fought for this country and for Africa to have this World Cup, so that is why you see soccer fans from around the globe converging on this place. It is like paying tribute to him."
Just in from Buenos Aires are Cecilia Brantas and Marco Ottone – Argentina fans, of course – who have headed straight to what has fast become the hub of fan activity. "We saw it on the TV and it was great and we wanted to be here and live it for ourselves, so it is a great experience," says Cecilia, happy to quietly watch the goings-on from several steps up. "The passion that we feel is amazing. All the countries are here and everybody is happy - they say hello, and swap flags or t-shirts. It's incredible."
"All this friendship and brotherhood is great, really great," adds Marco, in the shadow of the Madiba statue. "In our country, you don't see this brotherhood. It is really great and I am kind of in shock. Then the Mandela image gives another edge to the atmosphere. It gives you goose bumps."
As those goose bump-inducing Brazilian songs kick off once again, Hicham El Horr, an Argentina fan from Lebanon, declares: "It is one of the places that people should visit when they come to Johannesburg." The thousands of fans who have experienced its unique atmosphere so far would surely agree.